What do we all remember about our last night of summer before going off to college, jobs, or the military? So much pressure was laid on our shoulders to have one more final fling of a celebration before we “came of age.” Partying, cruising, dancing, drinking, and “making out” were the top four on most “to-do” lists. It was like cramming our entire youth into one final, wild, brief night of being with our friends. Who knew where we would all end up in the future? Would we still be friends next year or even five years from now? This seemed like ions in the future. Most could only calculate moment to moment…second to second. The prominent thought in my mind was, “Who was I without being surrounded by my cohorts?” Would I still be me…whoever that was at the time. Would I be forgotten and become a mere memory from the past? Could I find another core group who would support me in all my endeavors, or was it all downhill from here? There were doubts, fears, bravado, and daredevil attitudes. How in the world does anyone leave a “Camelot” kind of existence and move on to the next great thing? It certainly is a rite of passage that everyone must enter and get through, even though no one knows the proper or correct route. We stumble, we fall, and we screw-up just as the flailing, mixed-up bunch of kids did during one extra long night in AMERICAN GRAFFITI. From sundown to sun-up, all their futures changed forever, not only on screen but in their everyday lives.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI was filmed in a mere four weeks and almost totally at night. It boasted a tiny budget compared to other Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas films, yet made nearly $200 million. There wasn’t enough money to offer many crew members a salary, so they were given credit at the film’s end instead. This was the first movie to include every crew member’s name at the conclusion, and it was the beginning of a tradition to do so still practiced today. Harrison Ford was offered $485 a week for his role. He turned it down. He said he could make more being a carpenter. The studio offered him $500, and he said yes. Wow, the power of $15. Wolfman Jack, the popular disc jockey, was not offered a salary, but in the end, he received a minuscule percentage point from the movie profits. It was enough to allow him to live comfortably for the rest of his career.
The film premiered in 1973, fifty years ago. It was a simple story about friends gathering on their final night before two of them head off to college. Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) were leaving for school across the country in the morning. A very tough night for Steve’s girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams), and their two friends, John (Paul Le Mat) and Terry or The Toad (Charles Martin Smith). Along the way, Carol, played by twelve-year-old Mackenzie Phillips, and Debbie, portrayed by Candy Clark, get involved in the evening’s shenanigans. Harrison Ford plays a much smaller role that entails racing flashy cars. Harrison didn’t want to cut his hair, so he wore a hat in almost every scene (He probably should have gotten his hair trimmed instead).
What l loved about AMERICAN GRAFFITI was the perfect look back when guys would do anything stupid, especially while revving up their car engines or trying to pick up chicks. “Loosing their rides,” getting into fights, joining the Pharaohs, stealing booze, and begging for a huge “dedication” to a beautiful blond all became “normal” behavior. I fondly remember cruising Central, pulling over to “talk,” and running from one car to another in the middle of the street. It all seemed so realistic and reminiscent of days long gone. Water balloons, shaving cream, and snowball dancing were perfectly written. Kudos to the brilliant writers, which included George Lucas. The whining, dramatic, not over-the-top dialogue nailed the tones of 18-year-old teens.
The acting camaraderie between Curt and Steve was honest and superb. They “got” what it felt like to be on the cusp, from boyish giggles to manhood. Their adventures felt like it was something we all could relate to during our youth. The geekiness and awkwardness pulled audiences deep within the story even as Steve put “zit cream” all over his face. Were we ever that young? I loved and hated those moments simultaneously.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI is undoubtedly one of the most influential teen movie classics of all time. It is a masterpiece of a “picture perfect” period, but when audiences dig deeper, they will realize “Camelot” was just a myth to get us through the injustice of puberty.
It is available to rent on APPLE tv+.